On the trail of the Nitrous Mafia

Summer concerts are jamming to the familiar hiss of “hippie crack”

Sean, who admits that he has been in and out of jail for drug charges, was recruited into the Mafia last year during a time when he had no money and no food and was struggling to see his favorite bands. During All Good, a mob acquaintance offered to pay him to go on balloon runs. "Next thing I know, I made $60 in 40 minutes," Sean recalls. "It was big money. Eventually, I started making $900 a weekend." He was employed for a four-month period, during which time he spent nearly every day on the road with his colleagues living in hotels and U-Haul vans. He fell in love with the lifestyle. Girls would remove their tops in front of him just for a huff. Fans would drop $200 in three hours at his tank.

As a full-time Mafia member, Sean was known for his crafty methods of sneaking tanks past security guards. "I liked to store them inside box springs," he says. "We'd strip out the bottom and stash six cans inside. Then we'd lay it back down, put a mattress and blanket on it and make the bed. Security would open the back of the U-Haul, see a made bed, close the door and let us ride right on through."

During festival season, the Boston and Philadelphia crews band together, assisted by a recruited class of lower-level minions who aren't card-carrying members of the Nitrous Mafia but are eager to make a summer buck. They're often ex-cons—"crack dealers and dirtbag kids straight outta jail," says Sean—who like the idea of selling balloons to rich kids while inhaling all the nitrous they want for free. The full-time workers handle the money and oversee the stash houses, while the younger kids serve as lookouts and runners, communicating with one another with verbal signs and cell phone texts. "It's usually six guys to a tank," explains Sean. "One guy strappin', one guy fillin', one guy takin' money, then usually three lookouts spread out in a triangle about 20 feet in each direction watching for security."

After leaving on bad terms—he won't go into detail—Sean says he wishes he had never got caught up with the mob. "I realize the demons associated with it," he says. "They're really ruining the hippie scene."

NITROUS OXIDE HAS been around as long as the jam bands themselves. "It was easy to come by and part of the party," says songwriter and producer David Gans, a collaborator of the Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia. By the mid-'80s, the tanks began appearing on "Shakedown Street," the name for the public marketplace that Dead Heads ginned up at concert venues to finance their continuous touring. By the end of the decade, nitrous was standard fare, supplied primarily by out-of-town dentists.

But many Dead Heads were turned off by the tanks from the onset and began referring to the dealers as "tour rats" who made money off the mother ship. "They saw the nitrous vendors as people from outside of the subculture sucking profits out of the scene," says sociologist Rebecca Adams, a professor and associate provost at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

At the turn of the century, following the death of Garcia and the expansion of jam-band culture, Shakedown Streets along the East Coast began attracting nitrous dealers in greater numbers, and they were people who looked less like Phish fans. "I began noticing that all the people selling balloons weren't nice hippie kids trying to go from show to show," says fan Justin Heller. "It became clear that they were a bunch of thugs trying to make money."

This new class of gas dealers seemed to come almost exclusively from Philadelphia, where nitrous was easy to purchase. By 2003 the gas business had outgrown Shakedown Street and had crept onto street corners. Outside some concerts, tanks were stationed just feet from each other. Eventually, turf wars started breaking out, leading to intimidation and violence. Stronger nitrous dealers would ask lower-level merchants to hand over their tanks—or risk the consequences.

"If you start working Shakedown next to a bunch of the mob kids, and you try running your own tank there, you're gonna get that tank taken from you and it's gonna become theirs, unless you're paying them off," says Sean. "That's where the Mafia aspect really came around."

The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency doesn't consider nitrous a controlled substance and doesn't regulate it. Instead, it's monitored by the Food and Drug Administration as a food-grade propellant, medical-grade gas, and prescription drug. It's legal to own it, but like other inhalants, it's prohibited by the FDA to purchase and sell for the purposes of getting high. Each state has its own laws against it, and most treat the illicit sale of nitrous as a misdemeanor, with penalties ranging from small fines to a few months in prison. In what was likely the most significant federal crackdown on the gas, defendants from Philadelphia and New Jersey were charged with unlawful distribution of nitrous to an undercover police officer in the parking lot outside a Dave Matthews Band show at Washington, D.C.'s Robert F. Kennedy Stadium in 2001. At an appeal hearing, a District Court judge ruled that the dealers' attempt to sell nitrous without a prescription was, in essence, a misbranding crime, in violation of the Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, and the defendants' cases were sent back to lower courts.

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